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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


Roosevelt and His Men

THERE was a thunder of hoofs on the road that descends the slope from Camp Wikoff to the Life-Saving Station, and a squad of horsemen swarmed over the hill. A stocky, strongly built man on a big horse was in the lead. In his worn uniform and gray army hat he suggested irresistibly, as he swept by, Sheridan on his wild ride to “Winchester, twenty miles away.” They were gone like the wind, leaping the muddy ford at the foot of the hill and galloping madly across the sands. My horse, that had been jogging along sedately enough till then, caught the spirit of the rush and made after them, hard as he could go. On the beach we caught up with them, riding in and out of the surf with shouts of delight, like so many centaurs at play. The salt spray dashed over them in showers of shining white, but they yelled back defiance at the ocean. Their leader watched them from his horse, and laughed loudly at their sport.

They were Roosevelt and his men. “Roosevelt’s Rough-Riders” belong to history now, with the war in which they held such a picturesque place. I had seen them go, full of youthful spirits, eager for the fray, and it was my privilege to hear the last speech their Colonel made to them on the night when the news of the disbandment came. He had ridden up from the Commanding General’s quarters with the message, and, calling his men about him in the broad street facing the officers’ tents, told them of the coming parting.

“I know what you were in the field,” he said. “You were brave and strong. I ask now of you that every man shall go back and serve his country as well in peace as he did in war. I can trust you to do it.”

They tried to cheer, some of them, but they had no heart in it. The men went quietly to their tents with sober faces, and I saw in them that which warranted the trust their Colonel put in them.

The Rough-Riders were not, as many have supposed, a product of the war with Spain. On the contrary, the mounted riflemen were the historic arm of the United States from the earliest days of the Nation. In the War of the Revolution they came out of the West and killed or captured the whole of the British forces at King’s Mountain. A descendant of two of the three colonels who commanded them then fought with Roosevelt at Las Guasimas and on the San Juan hill. They furnished the backbone of Andrew Jackson’s forces in the War of 1812. As the Texas Rangers they became famous in the troubles with Mexico. They conquered the French towns on the Illinois, and won the West from the Indians in a hundred bloody fights. In the Civil War they lost, to a great extent, their identity, but not their place in the van and the thick of the fight. Theodore Roosevelt as a historian knew their record and value; as a hunter and a plainsman he knew where to find the material with which to fill up the long-broken ranks. It came at his summons from the plains and the cattle-ranges of the great West, from the mines of the Rocky Mountains, from the counting-rooms and colleges of the East, and from the hunting-trail of the wilderness, wherever the spirit of adventure had sent young men out with the rifle to hunt big game or to engage in the outdoor sports that train mind and body to endure uncomplainingly the hardships of campaigning. The Rough-Riders were the most composite lot that ever gathered under a regimental standard, but they were at the same time singularly typical of the spirit that conquered a continent in three generations, eminently American. Probably such another will never be got together again; in no other country on earth could it have been mustered to-day. The cowboy, the Indian trailer, the Indian himself, the packer, and the hunter who had sought and killed the grizzly in single combat in his mountain fastness, touched elbows with the New York policeman who, for love of adventure, had followed his once chief to the war, with the college athlete, the football player and the oarsman, the dare-devil mountaineer of Georgia, fresh from hunting moonshiners as a revenue officer, and with the society man, the child of luxury and wealth from the East, bent upon proving that a life of ease had dulled neither his manhood nor his sense of our common citizenship. They did it in a way that was a revelation to some who under other circumstances and in a different environment would have called them “dudes.” In the fight they were the coolest and in the camp frequently the handiest of the lot. One whose name is synonymous with exclusiveness in New York’s “smart set,” and who for bravery in the face of the enemy rose to command of his troop, achieved among his brother officers the reputation of being handiest at “washing up” after “grub,” when they had any. And it happened more than once on the long marches through the Cuban jungle, when “Roosevelt’s Rough-Riders,” compelled to campaign on foot, in humorous desperation had taken the more fitting title of “Wood’s Weary Walkers” to themselves, that some Eastern-bred man with normal manners of languid elegance was able to relieve his hardier Western neighbor who had never walked five miles on foot in his life. When at the end of the march the college chap came trudging up cheerfully carrying two packs beside his own and ready for the chores of camp that his tired comrade might rest, a gap was closed then and there in our national life that had yawned wider than it had any right to. More than all political arguments, more than all the preachments of well-meaning sociologists, did this brief summer’s campaign contribute to fill out the gap between East and West, between North and South, between “the classes and the masses,” unless I greatly mistake. It was not in the contract, but it came out so when once they got a fair look at each other and saw that in truth they were brothers.

There were clergymen in the ranks. I am not referring now to Chaplain Brown, whose stout defense of his Western men,—he was from Prescott, Arizona,—when he thought I was attacking them, I remember with mingled amusement and pleasure. He was an Episcopalian of no special affiliation with high-church or low-church tendencies within his fold. “You see, I don’t go much on the fringes of religion,” he said simply. He was after the genuine article, and he found it in his cowboy friends—real reverence, and such singing! He was holding forth to me upon this theme as we lay in the long grass, when I ventured to remark that I had heard that his people were given to violence, shooting-matches, and such. He denied it hotly. They were the quietest, nicest fellows; only once in a while, when a fellow was caught cheating at cards, then—

“But,” argued the Chaplain, rising on his elbow and earnestly pointing a spear of grass he had been chewing at me, “when a man cheats at cards, he ought to be shot, ought n’t he? Well, then, that is all.”

I confess to a certain enjoyment in the thought of Chaplain Brown’s theology on a background of the Rough-Riders’ singing at “meetin’” in the woods. The combination suggests that first funeral on the ridge at Guantanamo, with the marines growling out the responses to the Chaplain’s prayer between pot-shots at the enemy, flat on their stomachs under the sudden attack; and, indeed, Colonel Roosevelt himself gave testimony that he had seen Chaplain Brown bring in wounded men from the field under circumstances that were distinctly stirring. But for all that, the Chaplain is a digression. The clergymen I was thinking of wore no shoulder-straps. They carried guns. One of them came up to bid his Colonel good-by when I was sitting with him. He was tall and straight, and of few words.

“That man,” said Mr. Roosevelt, as he went across the field back to the camp, “represents probably the very best type of our people. He is a Methodist preacher, of the old circuit-rider’s stock, strong, fearless, self-reliant. His people had been in all our wars before him, and he came as a matter of course. You should have seen him one morning sitting in the bombproof with his head just below the traverse, where the shrapnel kept cracking over his hat. They could n’t touch him, as he knew, and he sat there as unconcerned as if there were no such things as guns and battles, breaking the beans for his coffee with the butt of his revolver. He was n’t going into the fight without his coffee. He was a game preacher.”

An hour later, when, after a visit to the two mascots of the regiment,—Josie, the mountain lion, and the eagle, Jack,—I was chatting with Lieutenant Ferguson, a young Englishman who won signal distinction in battle, the flap of the tent was raised and a tall trooper darkened the entrance. He came to make a report, and stood silently at attention while the officer examined it. His questions he answered in monosyllables. “That was Pollock,” said his superior when he was gone. “He is a full-blooded Pawnee. He has never anything to say, but you should see him in a fight. I shall never forget the ungodly war-whoop he let out when we went up the San Juan hill. I mistrust that it scared the Spaniards almost as much as our charge did. I know that it almost took my breath away.”

Such was the material of which the regiment was made. Ninety-five per cent. had herded cattle on horseback, on the great plains, at some time or other. A majority had been under fire. The rifle was their natural weapon. They were not to be stampeded, and they knew how readily to find the range of the enemy’s sharpshooters, a fact that rendered them far more effective in a fight than the average volunteer, who had hardly a speaking acquaintance with his gun. Ninety per cent. of the Rough-Riders were Americans born and bred. Perhaps a hundred were of foreign birth—German, Norwegian, English. There were Catholics and Protestants, and they joined with equal fervor in the singing that edified Chaplain Brown. They stood all on the same footing. The old American plan ruled: every one on his merits. In the last batch recommended for promotion by Colonel Roosevelt for gallantry in the field was a Jew. The result of it all was a corps that excited the admiration of the regulars who fought side by side with them.

Of their gameness innumerable stories have been told. The Indian Issbell was shot seven times in the fight at Las Guasimas, but stayed in the firing-line to the end. Private Heffner, shot through the body, demanded to be propped up against a tree and given his rifle and canteen. So fitted out, he fought on until his comrades charged forward and he could no longer shoot without danger of hitting them. They found him sitting there dead after the fight. The cow-puncher Rowland from Santa Fé was shot through the side and ordered to the rear by Colonel Roosevelt, who saw the blood dripping from the wound. He went obediently until he was out of sight, and then sneaked back into the ranks. After it was over they seized him and took him to the hospital, where the surgeons told him he would have to be shipped north. That night he escaped and crawled back to the front as best he could. He fought beside his Colonel all through the Santiago fight.

It was predicted that, with their antecedents, the Rough-Riders could not be disciplined so as to become effective in the field; but exactly the opposite happened. They showed the world the new spectacle of a body of men who could think and yet be soldiers; who obeyed, not because they had to, but because it was right they should, and they liked to. They might not have been perfect in what the Chaplain would have called the fringes of soldiering. The pipe-clay and the regulations, and all that, they knew nothing about. But they kept order in their camp, and they knew the command Forward, when it was given. In their brief campaign they had no opportunity to learn any other. Their soldiers’ manual was brief. It forbade grumbling, and there was none. Three days they camped out in the sun and rain on the San Juan hills, fighting by day and digging burrows by night, with little to eat and only the ditches to sleep in, but not a complaint was heard. When the enemy attacked, suddenly and in full force, at three o’clock in the morning, they were there to meet him, and, hungry and shivering, drenched through and through by the rains and by the heavy dews, they drove him back.

“That is the test,” said their commander, speaking of it afterward: “to wake up men at three o’clock in the morning who have had nothing to eat, perhaps for days, and nothing to cover them; to wake them up suddenly to a big fight, and have them all run the right way; that is the test. There was n’t a man who went to the rear.”

The Rough-Riders were natural fighters, from the Colonel down. The science of war as they took it from him and practised it summed itself up in the simple formula to “strike hard, strike quick, and when in doubt go forward.” It was so Napoleon won his victories. But the Spaniards complained bitterly. The Americans did not fight according to the rules of war, they wailed. “They go forward when fired upon instead of falling back.” Accordingly they, the Spaniards, were compelled to run, which they did, denouncing the irregularity of the preceding. It was irregular. It was one of the several things in this extraordinary war that did violence to all the traditions, and tangled up military precedent and red tape in the field in a hopeless snarl. However, enough remained over in camp, after the fighting was over, to more than make up for it.

The regiment was before the people almost continuously for three months. Raised, organized, equipped, and carried to Cuba within a month by the same splendid energy and executive force that fitted out the navy for its victorious fights in the East and West, it took the field at once and kept it till the army rested upon its arms under the walls of Santiago. All the way up it had been the vanguard. The dispatches from the front dealt daily with the Rough-Riders’ exploits. When, at Las Guasimas with General Young’s corps, they drove before them four times their number of Spaniards, frightened at their impetuous rush in the face of a withering fire from the shelter of an impenetrable jungle, the croakers said that they were ambushed, and, as in the old days when Roosevelt led the police phalanx, the cry was raised at home that he should be put on trial, court-martialed. The fact was that the Rough-Riders were fighting a most carefully planned battle. It was the way they won that frightened the cravens at home, as it did the Spaniards. The victory cost some precious lives, but it is at such cost that victories are won, and the moral effect of the attack was very great. Beyond a doubt it saved worse bloodshed later on. It has been Theodore Roosevelt’s lot often to be charged with rashness, with what his critics in the rear are pleased to call his “lack of tact.” It is the tribute paid by timidity to unquestioning courage. The campaign having been carefully planned, and General Wheeler having issued his orders to attack the enemy, the thing left to do was to charge. And they charged. The number of the enemy had nothing to do with it, nor the fact that he was intrenched, invisible, whereas they were exposed, in full sight. He was to be driven out; and he was driven out. That was war on the American plan, as understood by the Rough-Riders.

Ten days of marching and fighting in the bush culminated in the storming of the San Juan hills, with Colonel Roosevelt in full command, Colonel Wood having been deservedly promoted after Las Guasimas. The story of the famous charge up the barren slope, of the splendid bravery of the colored cavalry regiment that had been lying out with the Rough-Riders in the trenches and now came to the support of their chums with a rush, and of the victory wrested from the Spaniards when all depended upon the success of the attack, will be told in years to come at every American fireside. How much of the quick success of the campaign was really due to the Roosevelt Rough-Riders, what fates hung in the balance when their impetuous rush saved the day, when retreat had been counseled and in effect decided, we understood better as we learned the real state of the invading army on the night of June 30. Let it be enough to say that it did save the day. Others fought as valiantly, but the honor of breaking the Spanish lines belongs to the Rough-Riders, as the honor and credit of standing firmly for an immediate advance upon the enemy’s works belongs to their Colonel and his bold comrades in the council of the chiefs in that fateful night.

It was one of the unexpected things in that campaign, that out of it should come the appreciation of the colored soldier as man and brother by those even who so lately fought to keep him a chattel. It fell to the lot of General “Joe” Wheeler, the old Confederate warrior, to command the two regiments of colored troops, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, and no one will bear readier testimony than he to the splendid record they made. Of their patience under the manifold hardships of roughing it in the tropics, their helpfulness in the camp and their prowess in battle, their uncomplaining suffering when lying wounded and helpless, stories enough are told to win for them fairly the real brotherhood with their white-skinned fellows which they crave. The most touching of the many I heard was that of a negro trooper who, struck by a bullet that had cut an artery in his neck, was lying helpless, in danger of bleeding to death, when a Rough-Rider came to his assistance. There was only one thing to be done: to stop the bleeding till a surgeon came. A tourniquet could not be applied where the wound was. The Rough-Rider put his thumb on the artery and held it there while he waited. The fighting drifted away over the hill. He followed his comrades with longing eyes till the last was lost to sight. His place was there; but if he abandoned the wounded cavalryman, it was to let him die. He dropped his gun and stayed. Not until the battle was won did the surgeon come that way; but the trooper’s life was saved. He told of it in the hospital with tears in his voice: “He done that to me, he did; stayed by me an hour and a half, and me only a nigger!”

The colored soldiers had taken a great liking to their gallant side-partners. They believed them invincible, and in the belief became nearly so themselves. The Rough-Riders became their mascot. They would have gone through fire for them, and in sober fact they did. So fighting and burrowing together, holding every foot they gained from the enemy, they came at last to the gates of the beleaguered city, and there were stayed by the white flag of truce. Two weeks they lay in the trenches ready to attack when the word was given, and then came the surrender. Up to that point the Rough-Riders had borne up splendidly. Poor rations had no terrors for them. If “cold hog” was the sole item on the bill of fare, it went down with a toast to better days. Starvation they bore without grumbling while fighting for their lives and their country. The sleepless night, the rain-storms in the trenches, the creeping things that disgust Northern men, the tarantulas and the horrible crabs, they took as they came. It was not until they were fairly back home, in Camp Wikoff, that they rebelled against tainted food sent up from the ship and demanded something decent to eat. But before that they had their dark day, when the fever came and laid low those whom the enemy’s bullets had spared.

It was then, when the fighting was over but a worse enemy threatened than the one they had beaten in his breastworks,—an ally on whose aid the Spaniards had openly counted, and, but for the way in which they were rushed from the first, would not have counted in vain,—that the Rough-Riders were able to render their greatest service to their country, through their gallant chief. Until Colonel Roosevelt’s round-robin, signed by all the general officers of the army in Cuba, startled the American people and caused measures of instant relief to be set on foot, the fearful truth that the army was perishing from privation and fever was not known. The cry it sent up was: “Take us home! We will fight for the flag to the last man, if need be. But now our fighting is done, we will not be left here to die.” It was significant that the duty of making the unwelcome disclosure fell to the Colonel of the Rough-Riders. Of all the officers who signed it he was probably the youngest; but from no one could the warning have come with greater force.

The Colonel of the Rough-Riders at the head of his men on San Juan hill, much as I like the picture, is not half so heroic a figure to me as Roosevelt in this hour of danger and doubt, shouldering the blame for the step he knew to be right. Perhaps it is because I know him better and love him so. Here was this man who had left an office of dignity and great importance in the Administration to go to the war he had championed as just and right; who had left a family of little children to expose his life daily and hourly in the very forefront of battle; whose every friend in political life had blamed him hotly, warning him that he was wrecking a promising career in a quixotic enterprise—apparently justifying their predictions at a critical moment by deliberately shouldering the odium of practically censuring the Administration of which he was so recently a member. For that was what his letter amounted to; he knew it and they knew it. Verily, it is not strange that some who would have shrunk from the duty should call him “rash” for doing what he did. They did not know the man. It was enough for him that it was duty, that it was right. He never had other standard than that.

So the army came home, his Rough-Riders with it, ragged, sore, famished, enfeebled, with yawning gaps in its ranks, but saved; they to tell of his courage and unwearying patience; how in the fight he was always where the bullets flew thickest, until he seemed to them to have a charmed life; how, when it was over, as they lay out in the jungle and in the trenches at night, they found him always there, never tiring of looking after his men, of seeing that the wounded were cared for and the well were fed; ready to follow him through thick and thin wherever he led, but unwilling to loaf in camp or to do police duty when the country was no longer in need of them to fight; he to be hailed by his grateful fellow-citizens with the call to “step up higher.” Once more the right had prevailed, and the counsel of expediency been shamed. Roosevelt’s Rough-Riders had written their name in history.

“They were the finest fellows, and they were dead game. It was the privilege of a lifetime to have commanded such a regiment. It was a hard campaign, but they were beautiful days— and we won.”

We were lying in the grass at his tent, under the starry August sky. Taps had been sounded long since. The Colonel’s eye wandered thoughtfully down the long line of white tents in which the lights were dying out one by one. From a darker line in front, where a thousand horses were tethered, quietly munching their supper, came an occasional low whinnying. That and the washing of the surf on the distant beach were the only sounds that broke the stillness of the night. A bright meteor shot athwart the sky, leaving a shining trail, and fell far out beyond the lighthouse. We watched it in silence. I know what my thoughts were. He knew his own.

“Oh, well!” he said, with a half-sigh, and arose, “so all things pass away. But they were beautiful days.”

I knocked the ashes from my cigar, and we went in.